Thurso is the most northerly town on the British mainland. It was founded over 10 centuries ago by Viking earls and was named Torsaa (Thor’s river) after the Norse god of war.
The town has a fine selection of shops, hotels and pubs, and modern leisure facilities such as an indoor swimming pool and a cinema/bowling complex. Winding its way through the town and out into the Caithness hinterland is the 25-mile-long River Thurso, one of Scotland’s most important salmon fisheries.
Sir John Sinclair was a late 18th-century genius whose work as a politician, a chronicler of his times, a leading agriculturist and an inspirer of town planning gained him an international reputation. As the industries which he backed started to blossom, he decided that Thurso needed a new town extension. He laid out an attractive area in a grid pattern.
The town started to rise again from the late 1950s after an experimental atomic reactor was built at Dounreay, 10 miles to the west. The site is now being decommissioned but the story of the county’s long association with the nuclear industry is told at Caithness Horizons, the outstanding new visitor centre in the revamped Thurso Town Hall and adjacent Carnegie library.
It showcases the rich heritage, wildlife and ecology of the county, with interactive exhibitions and displays and a café.
The Skinnet and Ulbster standing stones are among the principal attractions, while there’s also a major display devoted to Robert Dick, a pioneering 19th-century geologist and botanist who worked long hours as a baker in Thurso and spent his spare time tramping enormous distances to collect rare specimens.
Down near Thurso harbour is the ruined Old St Peter’s Kirk, dating from the 13th century. Pennyland House, on the western outskirts of the town, was the birthplace of Sir William Smith, founder of the Boys’ Brigade in 1883. There is a display of BB memorabilia in the David Fraser room in Thurso’s William Smith Memorial Hall.
There’s a regular ro-ro ferry service from Scrabster (on the west side of Thurso Bay) to Stromness in Orkney.
Six miles south of Thurso is historic Halkirk, the first planned village in the Highlands, with an excellent standard of dining and accommodation. Fascinating exhibitions are staged each summer in the village’s Ross Institute by the Halkirk Heritage and Vintage Motor Society.
Thurso is within easy driving distance of some of north Sutherland’s finest beaches, notably Melvich and Strathy.